LINGUIST List 23.2971

Sun Jul 08 2012

Review: Lang Documentation; Morphology; Text/Corpus Ling: Haurholm-Larsen (2011)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 08-Jul-2012
From: Magnus Pharao Hansen <>
Subject: Sierra de Zongolica Nawatl Verbal Constructions - a functional analysis
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AUTHOR: Steffen Haurholm-LarsenTITLE: Sierra de Zongolica Nawatl Verbal Constructions - a functional analysisSERIES TITLE: LINCOM Studies in Native American Linguistics 65YEAR: 2011PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbH

Magnus Pharao Hansen, Department of Anthropology, Brown University


This book presents a description and analysis of the verbal morphology of someNahuan dialects (in the work spelled “Nawan” following Terrence Kaufman’sconvention) from the Zongolica area in Southern Veracruz, Mexico. It is based ona small corpus of spoken and written language from a handful of communities inthe area. The sources used include the following: 1. Seven oral narratives inthe dialect of Atlahuilco, Zongolica, published by Mills and Xicalhua inTlalocan in 2008. 2. Ten written texts with no information about community oforigin, published as a compilation of traditional narratives from Zongolica. 3.Transcribed recordings from the Zongolica Nahuatl language radio station with noinformation about community of origin of individual speakers. 4. Two largedatabases of words and sentences from a speaker from the community of San Juandel Rio, one of which was compiled by the author. The author defines the purposeof the study as giving a functionally grounded overview of verbal constructionsin order to point out openings for future research. In the introduction theauthor is explicit in acknowledging that the book is not intended to provide anexhaustive description of any single language or variety, nor a dialect survey,nor does it pretend to provide a novel theoretical approach.

Contrary to what the title of the book suggests, it is not structured aroundfunctions, but around formal structural categories. After the book’s briefsection on phonology and orthography the three main analytical sections follow:One on argument marking, one on verb classes and stems, and one on tense, aspectand mood. In this way the organization of the description of verbalconstructions is highly traditional, and accessible to all linguists regardlessof theoretical background.

The functional perspective comes into play in the organization of the individualsubsections where the author distinguishes sharply between the structuralelements under analysis (the morphemes), which he treats first, and thegrammatical and communicative functions that they serve in texts. In this waythe book is entirely organized around formal structural categories, which arethen in turn described by reference to their grammatical and communicativefunctions. This approach to description is itself quite traditional but in thiscase the author draws on the Danish functionalist tradition as laid out byHarder (1996) to motivate the dual focus on structure and function. Danishfunctionalism as presented, for example, in Engberg-Pedersen et al. (1996, 2005)employs a functional description on two parallel planes, the planes of contentand expression respectively. It assumes that functions on the expression plane,formal grammatical functions, are motivated by functions within the contentplane, communicative functions. Therefore linguistic description in thistradition aims at elucidating functions on both planes as well as establishingthe relations between them. Haurholm-Larsen implements this two-plane analysisby beginning each section with a description of the formal grammatical structureof an expression, and then describing the grammatical function of the expression.

The phonological and grammatical structure of the Zongolica Nawatl is verysimilar to other well-described varieties such as colonial Nahuatl of the Valleyof Mexico, and presents few surprises to those already familiar with the Nahuatllanguage. Among the phonological differences between Zongolica Nawatl and thebetter known varieties, however, are some of the language's allophonic processessuch as the devoicing of wordfinal /w/ to [ɸ], and the shift of the otherwisepredictable penultimate syllable accent to the first syllable of sometrisyllabic words. Some surprising grammatical features are that some of thesentences display the apparent grammaticalization of the root “se” ‘one’ as aperson prefix which can both express the generic impersonal sense of ‘one’ (“oneeats it ripe” about a fruit) but also as an alternate for the first personplural subject marker “ti-” (pp. 21-22). Further research is certainly in orderto determine whether this novel construction is in fact best analyzed asHaurholm-Larsen does, as a single form with a broad use, or whether theindefinite function and the first person plural function can be seen asseparate. Similarly, the use of the form “-tech-” instead of the expected“xi-nech-” in imperative forms with first person object is significant. Thesection on imperative and hortative forms (pp. 66-68) provide a fine semanticand discursive analysis, showing interesting differences in usage between thesetwo kinds of forms which to my knowledge has not been described for otherdialects. Finally, the form of the second person plural prefix, which inZongolica Nawatl is /em-/, is different from the better known dialects that tendto have /a/ in that morpheme.

The brief conclusion points towards topics of interest for further research. Theauthor suggests that the discursive functions of verbal constructions with theprefix /yo-/, and constructions with the suffix /-to/, both of which arerelated to grammatical aspect, require deeper semantic analysis. He alsosuggests that future studies ought to inquire into the effects of contact withSpanish on Nahuatl grammar.


The main contribution of the book is to make available an overview of some ofthe features of verbal morphology in the Zongolica dialects. The Zongolicaregion is significant both because it is a region with a large number of Nahuatlspeakers and a large degree of monolingualism. The variety described is alsorelevant because of its ambiguous dialect status. Canger (1980) considers itsdialects to belong to the Eastern Periphery (based on scant data), whereasLastra (1986) and Hasler-Hangert (2001) consider it to be in the central area.The dialect area has been sparsely described relative to the number ofspeakers, with only two descriptive sketches (Tuggy 1991, Hasler-Hangert 2001)and one dialect survey (Hasler-Hangert 1996). For these reasons the book is awelcome addition to the corpus of descriptive materials on the region.

In terms of content, the book contains several pieces of data that should be ofhigh interest for scholars of Nahuatl grammar and dialectology. The mostsurprising construction in the book is the apparent grammaticalization of thenumeral ‘one’, a bound morpheme ambiguously marking indefinite and pluralsubject, mentioned above. These kinds of small, but important differencesbetween the grammar of Zongolica Nawatl and other better known Nahuan languagesare of high value to comparative studies of Nahuan grammar, and the author couldhave done more to draw attention to these excellent tidbits -- perhaps the maincontribution of the book in this reviewer’s opinion.

The book also has a number of shortcomings, most of them recognized by theauthor, that make it less than optimally useful for most of the purposes forwhich a linguist might want to make use of it.

The main shortcoming (recognized by the author) is that the work does notrepresent any specific speech community or group of speakers. Zongolica is ageographic area with a great deal of internal variation (see e.g. Hasler-Hangert1996) rather than a homogeneous speech community. The “Zongolica Nawatl”described in the book is an abstraction from the different sources used by theauthor, representing at least the communities of San Juan del Rio and Atlahuilcowhich are several hours apart with other non-Nahuatl speaking communities inbetween. Many of the sources used have no information about the community oforigin of the speakers, making it impossible to know exactly which communitiesin Zongolica are being represented. In the work the author never contrasts datafrom different communities or draws attention to the possibility of differencesbetween them. This means that the language described is a kind of averaged“regiolect”. The fact that the study does not fully represent any single variety(if, for example, the author had focused on data from one variety, using datafrom others only as contrast), means the that the work is not really useful forcomparison between the verbal morphology of “Zongolica Nawatl” and that ofanother variety.

The value of the book for comparative purposes is also handicapped by the factthat it is based on a very small number of sources of highly heterogeneous typeand quality. Its data sources include edited oral narratives, transcribedinterviews, written narratives and presumably constructed sentence examples inthe dictionary material. The author acknowledges that there may be importantdifferences in grammar and syntax between oral and written language, but makesno effort at addressing these differences. Under other circumstances analyzingboth written and spoken language could be highly valuable -- but only if thesedifferent kinds of speech were in fact contrasted so that their differences weremade apparent. This work however does the opposite: it abstracts away from thedifferences to represent a homogeneous averaged variety.

The fact that the book contains linguistic data from a variety of sources butdoes not adequately address their differences, means that while the bookpotentially could be used for comparative purposes such as dialectology oranalyzing differences between spoken and written linguistic styles, itsorganization does not facilitate such uses. Using it for any comparative purposewould require the researcher to carefully distinguish between text examples fromdifferent communities and examples for which community of origin is not known,as well as between examples from oral and written texts.

Perhaps the most obvious usage of the book would be as a reference forlinguistic typologists who do not have background knowledge of Nahuatl, but whowish a handy reference to the main typological features of verbal marking in thelanguage. But for typological purposes the book is handicapped by the exclusionof certain verbal constructions from discussion. For example, for reasons ofspace (the book is less than 65 pages) the author excludes the applicative andcausative forms of verbs from the description of valence and transitivity. Theauthor also does not mention whether the language has an honorific distinctionon verbs as most of the best-described Nahuan languages do. This means that wedo not know whether the category is excluded from the description, or whetherthe honorific register is simply not present in this dialect, which would havebeen relevant information. These omissions mean that if used as an introductionto Nahuan verbal typology, the typologist risks missing important aspects ofverbal morphology.

For this reviewer, another source of frustration was the theoretical perspectiveand the resulting organization. The frustration is caused by the disjunctionthat exists between the theoretical perspective laid out in the introduction andthe way that the actual analysis is carried out in the subsequent sections. Inthe introduction, the author defines the study as theoretically based in Danishfunctionalism as exemplified by Harder (1996). Haurholm-Larsen provides severalquotes by Harder which all focus prominently on the aspect of communicativefunction, on the communicative context as being embedded within the framework oflived social experience, and on the functions of language in creating andcommunicating shared mental spaces between interlocutors. Even so, theconceptualization of function employed in the analysis of Nawatl verbalconstructions is almost entirely language internal, describing only thefunctions of grammatical elements in relation to each other. Pragmatic anddiscursive considerations and considerations of contextual influence on meaningare entirely absent. This is surprising given the importance generally given topragmatics and discourse level functions within Danish Functionalism, theauthor's chosen theoretical framework. This results in a study that is less of afunctional analysis than it is a traditional structural analysis. This may beconsidered to be mostly a flaw of labeling -- the analysis applied would simplyhave been better described as structural than as functional. If the readerignores the theoretical discussion of the introduction, and simply reads thebook on its own terms as a traditional structural-functional analysis, thechoices made in the presentation and analysis of the data makes more sense.

Another surprise in the introduction was the fact that the author carefullyjustifies and motivates very basic terminological choices and linguisticconcepts. For example, the principle of the phoneme and its applicability aretreated in detail, differences between structural and functional approaches aredescribed, as well as concepts such as 'morpheme' and 'verb construction'.Perhaps this emphasis on basic linguistic concepts stems from the fact that thebook was originally written as an MA thesis at the University of Copenhagen, butit stands out rather oddly in a work aimed at an audience of linguists. It alsocontrasts with the much less theoretically specific approach to morphologicalanalysis, and the lack of theoritical specificity in the approach to thepresumably central concept of 'function'.

One descriptive problem does arise from the choice of using formal structuralunits as the principle of organization: the fact that some important grammaticalfunctions do not have dedicated verbal morphology. Since sections are organizedaround morphemes and the analysis of their grammatical functions, thosegrammatical functions are simply absent from the description. For example, mostNahuatl varieties do not have morphology dedicated to expressing the discoursefunction of downplaying the prominence of the subject relative to object, suchas a passive form (see Canger 1996 for an analysis of Classical Nahuatl). SinceZongolica apparently likewise does not have dedicated passive morphology thisimportant discourse function is not included in the work at all. This is aserious shortcoming because of the fact that the form often described as passiveor impersonal in Colonial written Nahuatl frequently has completely differentuses in contemporary dialects, which in turn tend to have innovative ways ofmanipulating the pragmatic status of speech participants. It strikes thisreviewer that the “se” form mentioned above is an example of such a discoursestrategy. Many other dialects use “se” ‘one’ in the same places where Spanishwould form the impersonal with “uno” (e.g. “Uno no sabe que pensar”/‘One doesn’tknow what to think’), suggesting that Nahuatl has calqued the Spanishexpression. Here however it seems that in Zongolica Nawatl “se” has become fullygrammaticalized since it appears also inside the verbal structure, as forexample in the utterance “kan o-se-mitz-namik Gustavo?” ‘Where did we meet youGustavo?’. Here attention to discourse function could have motivated a detailedanalysis of this kind of construction, either justifying or bringing intoquestion the adequacy of the analysis as ‘se’ as being an ambiguous marker ofindefinite / first person plural.

The lack of analysis of discursive and pragmatic phenomena is almost certainlydue to the nature of the data analyzed, which does not lend itself to this typeof analysis. But the study would have been stronger if the author had explicitlyacknowledged that this was the case, and chosen a theoretical framework moresuited for analyzing this kind of material.

In sum, the book is a welcome addition to the corpus of descriptions ofcontemporary Nahuatl dialects. But it could have been much more useful if it hadfocused either on making a contribution to the field of dialectology or togiving a detailed analysis of the usage of a few grammatical elements in onevariety. By choosing a scope that is too broad to give an adequately detaileddescription the book joins the ranks of the many partial grammatical sketches ofcontemporary Nahuatl varieties. In doing so it does fulfill its aim of pointingto openings for future research, but it also raises more questions than it answers.


Canger, Una. (1980). Five Studies Inspired by Náhuatl Verbs in -oa. Travaux duCercle Linguistique de Copenhague, Vol. XIX. Copenhagen: The Linguistic Circleof Copenhagen; distributed by C.A. Reitzels Boghandel.

Canger, Una. (1996). ''Is there a passive in Nahuatl?'' In Engberg-Pedersen,Elisabeth, et al. Content, expression and structure: studies in Danishfunctional grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamin's Publishing Co., pp. 1-15.

Engberg-Pedersen, Elisabeth, Michael Fortescue, Peter Harder, Lars Heltoft &Lisbeth Falster Jakobsen. (1996). Content, Expression and Structure - Studies inDanish Functional Grammar, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Engberg-Pedersen, Elisabeth, Michael Fortescue, Peter Harder, Lars Heltoft,Michael Herslund & Lisbeth Falster Jakobsen. (2005). Dansk FunktionelLingvistik – en helhedsforståelse af forholdet mellem sprogstruktur, sprogbrugog kognition. København / Roskilde: Københavns Universitet / Handelshøjskolen iKøbenhavn / Roskilde Universitetscenter.

Harder, Peter. (1996). Functional Semantics: A Theory of Meaning, Structure andTense in English. (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 87). Berlin/NewYork: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hasler Hangert, Andrés. (1996). El Náhuatl de Tehuacán-Zongolica. Centro deInvestigaciones Superiores en Antropología Social. Casa Chata, Mexico.

Hasler Hangert, Andrés. (2001). Gramática moderna del Náhuatl de Tehuacán-Zongolica.

Lastra de Suárez, Yolanda. (1986). Las áreas dialectales del Náhuatl moderno.Serie antropológica, no. 62. Ciudad Universitaria, México, D.F.: UniversidadNacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas.

Tuggy Turner, David. (1991). Curso del Náhuatl Moderno. Universidad de lasAméricas-Puebla, Puebla.


Magnus Pharao Hansen holds MA degrees in Indigenous American Languages and Cultures from the University of Copenhagen and in Anthropology from Brown University, where he is currently working towards the PhD in Linguistic Anthropology. He has done fieldwork on the Nahuatl language of Hueyapan, Morelos, and dialect surveys in the Zongolica area as well as in Southern Puebla and Morelos. He has also worked on the Otomi language of San Jeronimo Acazulco, and is currently interested in the linguistic and social effects of the institutionalization of indigenous languages.

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